As last year drew to a close, big tobacco was struggling to pitch its vaping products against trendy challenger brands.

Last year’s standout player – ElfBar – amassed a staggering £322m in supermarkets and c-stores in the year to 10 September. That put it well ahead of the £85.1m in sales racked up by number two brand, BAT’s Vuse. In third place was fellow disposable challenger Geek Bar, which sold £44.7m – outpacing Imperial’s Blu, BAT’s 10 Motives and JTI’s Logic.

Although both Imperial and BAT had their own disposable products, they simply hadn’t gained the same momentum.

Big tobacco may have therefore breathed a sigh of relief this year when ElfBar got its fingers burned in a large-scale product recall. The brand undertook a “voluntary withdrawal” after it emerged some of its vapes carried 50% more nicotine content than the permitted amount.

It leaves clear space for the tobacco giants to profit. And now, Philip Morris International (PMI) looks set to be among those reaping the rewards. Yesterday, it became the third of the four tobacco giants to decide ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

Its newly launched Veeba disposable vape is available in nine flavours with a nicotine strength of 1.8% (20mg/ml). It comes at £4.99 a stick at wholesalers and online trading platform of PML, the affiliate of PMI in the UK and Ireland.

PML’s marketing says reams about the strategy of big tobacco. In the wake of the Elf Bar fiasco, the manufacturer has wasted no time in emphasising the legitimacy of its product, which rolled out in Canada last July. Every production batch receives a certificate of analysis (COA) and undergoes regular randomised checks to ensure the correct liquid composition and nicotine content.

The tobacco giant also claims to be consciously avoiding any potential youth appeal. This is in response to widespread complaints over disposable brands using bright colours, confectionery flavours, and even cartoon imagery to appeal to teenagers.

“Retailers can feel assured that by listing Veeba, they are stocking a smoke-free product that adheres to local laws and in many cases strives to go even further,” said PML head of commercial planning Kate O’Dowd.

This also highlights another key advantage for big tobacco firms. They have decades of experience working with the retailers – and like them or not, they are far more of a known quantity than the likes of ElfBar.

It’s notable that JTI is the only remaining tobacco giant to have stayed away from disposables. It’s clearly riled by the success of the market, which has largely been built on youth appeal and has been dogged by breaches of health and environmental laws. At The Grocer’s business lunch today, the company called for tighter rules on disposables to tackle these issues – perhaps by bringing vaping penalties in line with those for tobacco products.

Granted, tougher rules for disposable vapes would be to the benefit of nicotine pouches – of which JTI is a leading manufacturer with Nordic Spirit – and heated tobacco, into which JTI launched its Ploom X device in November.

But this isn’t an entirely self-serving suggestion. There is growing political support for greater restrictions on disposable vapes, including measures to mitigate their environmental damage. The growing concerns over how they are disposed were compounded by research published this week, which found only 16 of more than 150 of the biggest vape brands in the UK have registered to comply with environmental regulations on electrical waste, which obliges them to fund recycling.

It seems inevitable there will be a crackdown at some point. But if the likes of PMI get ahead of these concerns by tackling them head-on – and they certainly have the deep pockets and experience to do so – they could secure an advantage in the growing disposable market.

ElfBar may have lit the fuse on disposable vaping. But as might be said of another controversial industry, in the long run, the house always wins.